Last spring, I tried to capture Barack Obama’s appeal in the
image of the American
Adam: the periodic quest, especially in times of trouble, for a leader
untainted by the past who promises to wipe clean the slate of history and allow
to begin anew. It wasn’t just Obama’s
message of “change” and “choosing the future over the past” that evoked the myth of the American
Adam. It was Obama himself: with his
unlined visage, his biracial upbringing in the far-off former colony of Hawaii, his charismatic
oratory, and his meteoric rise from
state senator to senator to presidential candidate. He was the image of newness
As Obama is about to become president at a time when disaster looms for the world economy – and if past pattern holds, for the relations among the worlds’ leading nations as well--he retains our hopes. He is still the American Adam, but he is now, too, the "mysterious stranger" on the world stage. Mythologically speaking, the mysterious stranger is the father of the American Adam. Or to put it mathematically, the American Adam is a subset of the mysterious stranger.
Above all, the mysterious stranger is a creature of religious history. He is of humble, or foreign, or unknown origin, an orphan, perhaps a bastard who appears suddenly on the scene at a time of crisis and proceeds to transform the world around him. Jesus Christ, the prophet Muhammad (an orphan at six), Confucius (reportedly a bastard), Joseph Smith (of humble birth), and William J. Seymour, the impoverished African-American preacher who founded American Pentecostalism.
Political history, too, is full of mysterious strangers--some heroic, others villainous. They include Napoleon (the Corsican who became emperor of France), Lenin (known by his revolutionary alias), Adolph Hitler (the Austrian art school dropout), and Gandhi (the South African expat). In American history, the great mysterious stranger is Lincoln, raised in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky who becomes president after serving only two years in Congress.
American literature is also filled with mysterious strangers, including the somewhat benevolent nephew of Satan who arrives in an Austrian town in Twain’s posthumously published Mysterious Stranger. Some of these strangers including Melville’s Billy Budd and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and Faulkner’s Joe Christmas (from Light in August) suffer tragic deaths. If you want a recent example from the movies, go to the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Or better still, watch the original from 1951, one of my childhood favorites.
In the original, set at the height of the Cold War, when nuclear devastation appeared possible, if not likely, a spaceship lands on the Ellipse in Washington D.C. bearing Klaatu, a visitor from an unknown planet who comes to save the world from itself. To warn the world that if it fails to unite, it will destroy itself, Klaatu, aided by his faithful robot Gort, shuts down the world’s electricity (except, of course, for hospitals and airplanes in flight). But on the way to a meeting with the world’s scientists, Klaatu is shot. I won’t reveal the ending.
None of this is to suggest Obama is Jesus or Lincoln or Klaatu. Or even more to the point, none of this is to suggest that he will suffer a tragic fate. But it is to say that we see him--unlike most other politicians that pass our way--through the prism of myth. He is a larger than life figure. Whether he can fulfill the promise of myth and bring "the change we need" remains to be seen. Part of his success will depend on his continuing to enjoy the image of the mysterious stranger. But the final test of his success and his presidency will take place in the realm of fact and not fiction.
--John B. Judis